Cathblog - The fear of fear

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These are difficult times: fiscal cliffs; gun control; sexual abuse; oppressive dictators; global warming; financial crises; the rise of secularism; potential nuclear threats; approaches to asylum seekers. And that is to name just a few. It appears that, at every turn in our lives, we are confronted by some form of fear, writes Garry Everett.

But as Franklin D. Roosevelt declaimed: ‘The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself’.

Psychologists tell us that fear is something each of us experiences uniquely, and that its major role is to prepare us for ‘flight or fight’. Some fear, then, is healthy; some is destructive. Fear might be an initial response to something unknown, or a perceived threat.

It might also be used as a method for obtaining control or compliance.

Another American, playwright Arthur Miller, once published a successful play entitled The Crucible; in it, he explored how the USA of the 1950s was being subtly controlled by the use of the fear of communism.

Here was fear being used as a political force only 20 years after Roosevelt asked Americans to be on their guard about the fear that paralyses initiatives which were needed to make the USA strong in a time of depression.

In a similar way at times, the Catholic Church has used fear for its own purposes. An Index of forbidden books was published lest the faithful be influenced by ideas different from those adhered to by the Church. Fear was often the core idea in many of the retreats delivered by priest especially trained in this form of ‘persuasion’. 

Fear of an angry God was once a popular theological perspective used to achieve compliance.

The Vat II Council had to confront the fear of the modern world and the associated fear of the Church becoming irrelevant. Fear of losing face, motivated many of the initial responses of Church authorities to the sexual abuse of minors. There are many other examples in which we, as individuals or as Church, have been motivated by fear to react in certain ways; or to govern in certain ways.

When we behave because the governance of fear requires us to do so, we become aware that  such fear-based behaviour (governance and reaction), contributes to a number of losses of things we value. Let me provide a few examples.

A sense of right and wrong.

When the Church was so afraid of losing face in the midst of the sexual abuse crisis, the Church leaders chose the wrong ways to respond in many cases. Image became more important than integrity.

A sense of the truth.

When authorities tell lies because they fear the truth, or fear losing control, they become manipulated by fear. The media once epitomised the idea of freedom of expression. Today the lie has usurped freedom in this public domain.

A sense of perspective.

When the American people became so afraid for their safety that they endorsed the right for individuals to carry guns, their fear gave birth to the dangerous perspective that ‘might is right’.

A sense of compassion.

When our fear of others as different dominates our behaviour, love is eroded or lost. Nations, Churches, communities and individuals are surrendering their loving ways. Fear, anger and hate are replacing them.

Perhaps at the heart of our contemporary experiences of fear is the sense of losing control. Organizations, from nations to families, want to have control as some form of inalienable right.

In order to protect this sense of right, we have developed notions of hierarchy (all power resides at the top); of infallibility (all truth is determined by the top); of authority as being unquestionable ( coercion is the way); of conformity, sometimes confused with unity,( and always opposed to diversity and difference.)

In using these structures and processes, organizations have tried to control behaviours, through related manifestations of fear. Indeed, it is rare now to find examples of non-fear-based discussions.

I suspect that even the current discussions about whether  Vat II  represents continuity or rupture,  are grounded in various dimensions of fear (especially the fear of losing control or of being controlled.)

How should we deal with this pervasive sense of fear in our lives?

A useful beginning could be made by taking time out to think about how we use, and are used by, fear.   We could begin by asking ourselves how we regard being different. Do we always see being different as somehow wrong, instead of seeing it as a gift”? Another commencing point is the description of two very famous centres of learning.

One is described as ‘the place of unquestioned answers’; the other as ‘the place of unanswered questions’ .  A third entry point might be the most repeated injunction in the Gospels: ‘Do not be afraid’.

However and wherever we begin, it is important that we do begin. If Roosevelt was correct, that our only fear is fear itself, then we should closely examine why this should be so, or perhaps why it should not be so.

I leave the last thoughts on this topic to Australia’s philosopher and cartoonist, Michael Leunig. In his version of the Gospel, he writes:

There are only two feelings:  love and fear;

 Only two languages:  love and fear;

Only two motives: love and fear;

Only two results: love and fear.

Garry Everett is deputy chair of Mercy Partners in Queensland and a former Deputy Director of the Queensland Catholic Education Commission and previous chair of the Brisbane Archdiocesan Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace.                                                                                       

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